As you know, it’s been widely reported in the national press that after six years as President Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder is stepping down. There are all sorts of messages that one can read in the tea leaves here – to the extent that Holder has been an effective A.G., he’s also been a favorite target of criticism from the far right, and it’s possible that as the midterm elections loom, President Obama is trying to neutralize some of that criticism.
The Department of Justice is a huge agency, and I’m sure that anyone working there would agree that it’s not a perfect place – certainly the criminal investigation and criminal prosecution arms of the Department have had their ups and downs over the past half-decade.
Similarly, I’m sure that the rank-and-file employees of the Voting Rights Section could, in moments of candor, express dissatisfaction with one or another aspect of the Department’s management. But no matter what opinion one may have of Attorney General Holder, and regardless of one’s political affiliations, one must agree that the Department of Justice has responded aggressively and consistently with respect to voting rights litigation after Shelby County v. Holder.
I think that on balance, Attorney General Holder’s resignation presages both a bruising confirmation fight for his successor (as predicted by every major media source), and a hit to the Voting Section’s employees’ morale.
Currently, the trial attorneys working for the Department in high-profile cases like the Texas 2011 redistricting case, the Texas voter I.D. case, the Ohio voter registration case, the Wisconsin voter I.D. case, the North Carolina voter I.D. case, and many other less visible voting rights cases, are doing absolutely stellar courtroom work, in both their filed motions and pleadings, and in the oral advocacy that they are doing.
Even if they aren’t interested in the issues being contested in these suits, law school students would do well to study and emulate the lucidity and organization of the Department of Justice-authored briefs that have been filed in these cases. This is top-notch, major league lawyering by many of the nation’s best civil rights litigators.
Such excellent work is possible in part because of the political and institutional support supplied to the Voting Section by Attorney General Holder. My fear is that the Republicans will now shift their resources away from attempting to defend their frankly indefensible restrictions on voting, and instead will use the Senate confirmation hearings to cripple voting rights advocacy.
For instance, here are a couple of illuminating pull quotes from the USA Today story about the A.G.’s resignation:
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a Holder critic, said Republicans would scrutinize the next nominee to make sure he or she “finally returns to prioritizing law enforcement over partisan concerns.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, urged Obama to take his time. “Rather than rush a nominee through the Senate in a lame-duck session, I hope the president will now take his time to nominate a qualified individual who can start fresh relationships with Congress,” he said.
“Prioritizing law enforcement over partisan concerns” should be read between the lines to mean “abandoning voting rights litigation,” because for decades, Republicans have characterized enforcement of the Voting Rights Act as a purely liberal Democratic Party concern.
And “I hope the president will now take his time to nominate a qualified individual” should be read as meaning, “After the November election, and with an (expected) Republican-led House and Senate, President Obama can kiss goodbye any hope of ever getting Senate confirmation of any nominee he chooses from now until the end of his term.”
My hope is that as Attorney General Holder leaves office, his status as a lame-duck head of the Department of Justice will free him to some extent to end his tenure with bold, fearless policy actions. Like maybe … I don’t know … boldly pushing for the enactment of a proposed Civil Rights Act-based set of administrative rules designed to curb the worst excesses of post-Shelby County restrictions on voting. That’s what I’d suggest.
For those of you using web readers, here are the cited links: